At the heart of Birgu (also called Vittoriosa), Malta, the Inquisitor’s Palace still stands magnificently; a notorious reminder of a thankfully bygone era. As with other historical locations, the Inquisitor’s Palace with its imposing, albeit distinctly aloof façade is undoubtedly the stuff of legends; the kind our forefathers intricately woven in their storytelling and where the boundary between fact and fiction was constantly blurred. Shrouded in mystery – whoever passed though its door was sworn to secrecy – it fuelled the imagination of the masses, at a time when the Church still ruled supreme and ignorance was rife.
The Roman Inquisition, also known as the Holy Office, originated in 1542, at a time when the Catholic Church all over Europe was in crisis due to the increasingly popular Protestant doctrines. Established by Pope Paul III, its sole purpose was to quell the dissidents of these ‘modern heretical’ teachings. The Inquisition guarded the Catholics against any kind of heretical practice, defection to the Islamic faith, the perusal of prohibited literature and any suggestion of witchcraft or sorcery. When established in Malta in 1562, the Holy Office vested the then Bishop Domenico Cubelles (1540- 1566) with the powers of Inquisitor, endowing him with the dual role of both Bishop and Inquisitor.
Officially established in 1574, the Inquisition failed drastically to reconcile the strained relations between the Knights and the Bishop of Malta, which at the time were far from cordial. Instead, it ignited even more conflict by creating the third power, vying ruthlessly for ultimate control over the islands. The Inquisition reigned over the islands for more than two centuries (1574 – 1798) with 62 Inquisitors, all Italian, leaving their indelible mark upon the country and its natives. Apparently, the Holy Office in Malta served a good number of its Inquisitors as a means of advancement in their ecclesiastical career, Twenty-seven became cardinals, and two of them were even elected Popes: Fabio Chigi , Inquisitor from 1634-1639 became Pope Alexander VII (1655-67), while Antonio Pignatelli, Inquisitor from 1646-1649 was elected as Pope Innocent XII in 1691 until his death in 1700.
The Inquisitor’s official residence in Vittoriosa was originally built in the 1530’s to serve as the civil law court of the Order of St John soon after their arrival on the islands in 1530. It served this purpose until 1571 when the Order transferred its headquarters to the new city of Valletta. When the Apostolic Delegate and first Roman Inquisitor in Malta Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived on the islands in 1574, he initially resided in Valletta, but soon deemed it more appropriate to have a palace with a prison attached to it at his complete disposal. The building, also known as Magna Curia Castellania was soon earmarked as the most suitable building for the new Inquisitor’s requirements and was renamed Palazzo Del Sant’ Officio.
Throughout the centuries, the building itself was greatly modified and extended to accommodate successive occupants, namely the 62 Inquisitors themselves, who sought to upgrade the palace according to their exigencies, whether real or imaginary. Subsequently, this even led to demolishing or altering sections of the building erected by their immediate predecessors. Their legacy is still apparent today, when in spite of careful restoration and recovering works, the structure still strikes as having been constructed quite haphazardly.
Speculation peppered with an abundant dose of scaremongering as to the horrors inflicted behind its majestic palace doors has consistently thrived throughout the years. Even today, the mere mention of the Inquisitor’s Palace conjures in one’s mind all manner of sadistic and terrifying images. This mostly exaggerated perception was perhaps further fuelled by the secrecy surrounding the procedures and functions of the Holy Office, where not only the accused were bound by very strict oaths of secrecy as to the occurrences inside the palace, but also the Inquisitors and their Ministers. Failing to honour this oath would incur the wrath of Rome in the form of excommunication which only the Cardinal Inquisitors of the Holy Congregation of Rome could remove.
Rumours of atrocious and unspeakable happenings within the Palace’s walls served to ignite the populace’s imagination and instil fear of the Holy Office. Whether these tales were instigated intentionally or not remains unclear, but to a certain extent they served as a sober deterrent for the people to ensure faithful adherence to the Church’s teachings. Undoubtedly, the greatest myth surrounding the Inquisitor’s Palace is the infamous ‘knife-pit’ (bir tas-skieken). It was believed that a pit with blades protruding from its circular wall was used for the execution of inmates; thrown alive, the prisoner would be mercilessly slashed to pieces to die an agonising death on the pit floor. This myth has been perpetuated to such an extent that very few people, locals included, perceive this legend for what it is – a gory myth fabricated throughout the ages by our ancestors.
Quite surprisingly, according to numerous records in the Archives of the Inquisition of Malta, the Holy Office’s methods, with its strictly observed procedures, were quite moderate when compared to torture administered by contemporary secular governments in most European prisons. Those who denounced themselves for any wrongdoing were never subjected to torture and were generally given penance of a spiritual nature. Frail, weak, elderly and disabled convicts were immediately exonerated from torture as were pregnant women. While the administration of torture varied from one Inquisitor to another, it was never used in the case of petty offences and contrary to what popular history might have us believe, it was applied in the most cautious and methodical manner.
Torture was always carried out in the presence of a doctor who certified or not the inmate’s state of health beforehand. The accused could not be tortured for more than 30 minutes at a time and only as a last resort, as the Inquisition itself was quite sceptic of confessions obtained in this manner. The most common form used (and practically the only one) was the ordinarily referred to ‘il tormento della corda’ otherwise known as the ‘strappado’. The hands of the accused would be tied with a rope behind his back which would be attached to a hook in the ceiling. He would then be pulled up in the air with his whole body weight supported only by his arms, suspended in mid-air for a short span of time where he would be lowered and raised again for not more than thirty minutes. Quite an unpalatable picture, but quite tame compared to contemporary methods used.
Today, the Inquisitor’s Palace, with its rich and opulent history remains the only one of its kind in the world to have resisted the ravages of time. Today, it serves as a National Museum of Ethnography under the auspicious patronage of Heritage Malta, who have undertaken the gargantuan task of restoring and cataloguing each and every artefact donated or recovered in connection with customs and traditions indigenous to our islands. It is an endless endeavour but is somehow proving fruitful as can be seen in the various permanent exhibitions at the Inquisitor’s Palace. The immeasurable bounty of historical treasures, where each and every nook and cranny tells a story is undoubtedly incomparable to both locals and foreigners alike.